NBA PREVIEW WESTERN CONFERENCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Midwest Division San Antonio Spurs Last season: First (56-26), lost to Portland in conference semifinals, 4-3.

Coach: Larry Brown (294-245).

New faces: F/C Sidney Green (trade), F David Greenwood (free agent), F Paul Pressey (trade), F Mike Mitchell (free agent), F Sean Higgins (draft), F Tony Massenburg (draft), C Dwayne Schintzius (draft).

Departed: F Frank Brickowski (trade), G David Wingate (released), C Uwe Blab (released), C Mark McNamara (trade).

Outlook: Brown has bolstered his bench with Green, Pressey and Mitchell on a talent-rich team built around C David Robinson.

Keys: Point guard Rod Strickland must overcome a reputation for inconsistency. If Schintzius can get his act together, the Spurs will have a rebounder to support Robinson and Terry Cummings.

Utah Jazz Last season: Second (55-27), lost to Phoenix in first round, 3-2.

Coach: Jerry Sloan (189-173).

New faces: G Jeff Malone (trade), C Walter Palmer (draft).

Departed: C Eric Leckner (trade), G Bobby Hansen (trade).

Outlook: Malone, with his outside touch, is considered the missing piece in building a championship team. That should help free F Karl Malone and F Thurl Bailey on the baseline.

Keys: Depth is lacking, particularly in the frontcourt behind Karl Malone and Bailey. The Jazz also requires G John Stockton's leadership 40 minutes or more.

Dallas Mavericks Last season: Third (47-35), lost to Portland in first round, 3-0.

Coach: Richie Adubato (54-87).

New faces: F Alex English (free agent), G Fat Lever (trade), F Rodney McCray (trade), G Phil Henderson (draft).

Departed: F Sam Perkins (free agent), C Bill Wennington (trade), G Steve Alford (released).

Outlook: The Mavericks traded four draft picks to obtain Lever and McCray. The Lever-Derek Harper-Rolando Blackman backcourt trio could be the league's best.

Keys: F Roy Tarpley's past drug problems make him a major question. Dallas is vulnerable at C with oft-injured James Donaldson.

Houston Rockets Last season: Fifth (41-41), lost to Los Angeles Lakers in first round, 3-1.

Coach: Don Chaney (139-210).

New faces: G Dave Jamerson (draft), F Carl Herrara (draft), G Kenny Smith (trade).

Departed: C Tim McCormick (trade), G Frank Johnson (released).

Outlook: G Sleepy Floyd proved an unreliable floor boss, losing the job to Vernon Maxwell. C Akeem Olajuwon tends to sulk during losing streaks.

Keys: Chaney is counting on Jamerson to make an instant contribution, freeing Olajuwon to work inside. If the Rockets get off to a slow start, Chaney could lose his job.

Denver Nuggets Last season: Fourth (43-39), lost to San Antonio in first round, Coach: Paul Westhead (139-104), first season with Nuggets.

New faces: F Orlando Woolridge (trade), G Chris Jackson (draft), G Stevie Thompson (draft), F Marcus Liberty (draft).

Departed: G Fat Lever (trade), F Alex English (free agent), C Danny Schayes (trade).

Outlook: Westhead is trying to impose a high-octane offense on the Nuggets, but they may lack the ingredients for 48-minute combustion.

Keys: The Nuggets will miss the consistent scoring of English and Lever. Jackson must supply help, but there are too many fresh faces to make Westhead's system work.

Minnesota Timberwolves Last season: Sixth (22-60).

Coach: Bill Musselman (49-127).

New faces: C Felton Spencer (draft), G Gerald Glass (draft), G Scott Brooks (trade), F Joe Wolf (trade), G Tim Legler (free agent).

Departed: G David Rivers (released), F Scott Roth (released).

Outlook: Of the original expansion picks, only Tyrone Corbin remains. By using the shot clock and tenacious defense, the Wolves were in almost every game last season.

Keys: First-round pick Spencer must supply needed rebounding muscle. Glass will ease the offensive pressure on Tony Campbell.

Orlando Magic Last season: Seventh in Central Division (18-64).

Coach: Matt Guokas (137-152).

L New faces: F Dennis Scott (draft), C Greg Kite (free agent).

Departed: G Reggie Theus (trade).

Outlook: After a fast start in the franchise's first season, reality underlined the need for a strong center and proven rebounder.

Keys: Scott will fill the scoring void left by Theus, but the Magic still lacks a big man.

Pacific Division

Phoenix Suns Last season: Third (54-28), lost to Portland in conference finals, Coach: Cotton Fitzsimmons (697-689).

New faces: F Ed Nealy (free agent), F Cedric Ceballos (draft), G Negele Knight (draft).

Departed: Rookie F Jayson Williams (trade), G Mike Morrison (trade).

Outlook: Phoenix has added backcourt depth in Knight, but may need a new sixth man to replace fading Eddie Johnson.

Keys: G Kevin Johnson must provide leadership in crunch time to be considered among the game's best.

Portland Trail Blazers ir,7p,10l Last season: Second (59-23), lost to Detroit in NBA Finals, 4-1.

Coach: Rick Adelman (73-44).

New faces: G Danny Ainge (trade), F Alaa Abdelnaby (draft).

Departed: G Byron Irvin (trade).

Outlook: The bench is unreliable, but Abdelnaby, a late first-round pick, could prove a steal.

Keys: Ainge, 30, must provide instant offense when G Clyde Drexler needs a breather. Portland needs improvement from F Cliff Robinson to relieve the rebounding burden on F Buck Williams.

Los Angeles Lakers Last season: First (63-19), lost to Phoenix in conference semifinals, 4-1.

Coach: Mike Dunleavy, first season.

New faces: F Sam Perkins (free agent), G/F Terry Teagle (trade), F Elden Campbell (draft).

Departed: G Michael Cooper (released), F Orlando Woolridge (trade).

Outlook: For first time since Magic Johnson joined Lakers in 1980, they are not favored to win the Pacific title. The team is caught in transition, with a heavy burden to succeed placed on second-year C Vlade Divac and newly acquired Perkins.

Keys: Dunleavy must prove a worthy successor to Pat Riley, shooting G Byron Scott must end his scoring decline and Divac must develop into a big-time center.

Los Angeles Clippers Last season: Sixth (30-52).

Coach: Mike Schuler (127-84), first season with Clippers.

New faces: G Bo Kimble (draft), F Loy Vaught (draft).

Departed: F Joe Wolf (free agent).

Outlook: Schuler inherited an impressive group of potential stars in F Danny Manning, F Ken Norman, G Gary Grant and F Charles Smith.

Keys: Shooting guard Ron Harper must make rapid recovery from knee surgery, and oft-maligned C Benoit Benjamin must continue to improve.

Golden State Warriors Last season: Fifth (37-45).

Coach: Don Nelson (620-428).

New faces: F Tyrone Hill (draft), C Les Jepsen (draft), G Kevin Pritchard (draft).

Departed: C Manute Bol (trade), F Terry Teagle (trade).

Outlook: Nelson looked for size in drafting Hill and Jepsen after rivals exploited the Warriors' small lineup last season, but he lost Bol in a trade.

Keys: Golden State will need F Jim Peterson back from the injury list to bolster the rebounding, and G Sarunas Marciulionis must assume more of a scoring load.

Seattle SuperSonics Last season: Fourth (41-41).

Coach: K.C. Jones (463-193), first season with SuperSonics.

New faces: G Gary Payton (draft), C Dave Corzine (free agent).

Departed: G Jim Farmer (free agent), G Avery Johnson (released).

Outlook: Seattle lacks an effective center. It is a poor passing team, and the bench is unproven, although it has firepower in G Dale Ellis, F Xavier McDaniel and F Derrick McKey.

Keys: Ellis must respond positively after his off-court troubles last season, which included a drunken-driving arrest. Payton must provide leadership at point guard.

Sacramento Kings l Last season: Seventh (23-59).

Coach: Dick Motta (824-788).

New faces: G Bobby Hansen (trade), F Eric Leckner (trade), C Bill Wennington (trade), G Rory Sparrow (trade), G Byron Irvin (trade), F Lionel Simmons (draft), F Anthony Bonner (draft), G Travis Mays (draft), C Duane Causwell (draft), G Ricky Calloway (waivers).

Departed: G Danny Ainge (trade), F Pervis Ellison (trade), F Rodney McCray (trade), G Vinny Del Negro (playing in Italy), F Harold Pressley (released).

Outlook: The emphasis is on youth, including four first-round draft choices. Motta figures to gear the offense to F Wayman Tisdale, F Antoine Carr and Simmons.

Keys: Almost all the rookies will have to be quick contributors, or the Kings will experience their eighth straight losing season.

Odds to win championship

Team Odds

Detroit 7-2

L.A. Lakers 9-2

San Antonio 6-1

Chicago 7-1

Phoenix 8-1

Portland 8-1

Cleveland 10-1

Philadelphia 12-1

Utah 12-1

Boston 15-1

New York 15-1

Dallas 20-1

Milwaukee 25-1

Seattle 30-1

Team Odds

Atlanta 35-1

Houston 35-1

Golden State 40-1

Indiana 40-1

L.A. Clippers 50-1

Denver 75-1

Washington 75-1

Sacramento 100-1

New Jersey 300-1

Charlotte 2,000-1

Miami 2,000-1

Minnesota 2,000-1

Orlando 2,000-1

7/8

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